Stitching Rural Wisconsin Together // Stitching a Life

The Wild Goose State Trail runs through present day Byron, Wisconsin. More specifically, where the Spencer Family farm was located, and where Philena Spencer, the creator of the featured signature quilt, lived the majority of her life. Although the trail doesn’t directly run through what was once her house (that still stands), Philena and her family most likely traveled along the route weekly to get into the neighboring city of Fond du Lac.

Relation to Philena Spencer
The trail marks where the Chicago and Northwestern railroad once stood. This railroad was the boundary line for the north west section of the Spencer family farm. The specific Fond du Lac railroad started in March 1855, a year after Philena’s signature quilt was completed. Philena was then present for the railroad’s building and completion as she lived in Byron with her family until her marriage. Her marriage into the Spencer family occurred in 1856, so the railroad, and now trail, became an even bigger part of her life as it then became part of the property, she would spend the majority of her life on. It is not far-fetched to believe that Philena wrapped herself in the warmth of her quilt while the trains roared as her background noise. The railroad added to the expansion of Fond du Lac, while her small town of Byron remained rural and quaint. The trains probably added to her life a sense of acknowledgement of the changing times, while serving as a reminder that the looming industrial changes were still a distance from her.

Philena and Bezaleel with their children at their farm (1893)
Wisconsin Historical Society, Box 1 of 2 Spencer and Germond Family Papers 1844-2004

Transition from Railroad to State Trail
The Chicago and North Western Transportation Company, as it became known after 1968, was a fundamental institution of the mid 19th century. The railroads owned and operated by this company allowed goods and people to travel across the mid-west with much less effort than ever before. Philena Spencer saw this with her own eyes as the Chicago, St. Paul and Fond du Lac Railroad, which ran through her husband’s property, was acquired by the company in 1859. The railroad was mostly known to transport potatoes, corn, and wheat, in addition to passengers, to the surrounding states. The railroad seems to have been abandoned in 1975 after the company’s significant reduction in size. This led to the transition of the railroad’s depot being added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990 and creation of the Wild Goose State Trail.

Portrait of Philena Spencer (1904)
Wisconsin Historical Society, Box 1 of 2 Spencer and Germond Family Papers 1844-2004

Family at the Spencer family farm (1892)
Wisconsin Historical Society, Box 1 of 2 Spencer and Germond Family Papers 1844-2004

Trail Today
The Wild Goose State Trail today lines the 34-mile rail trail that follows the edge of Horicon Marsh up through the city of Fond du Lac. Today, without trains constantly running through the area, over 250 bird species, small mammals, and wildflowers call the trail home. Visitors to the area are welcome on the main trail year-round, and there are several small communities with local activities along the way for additional entertainment. The main trail and other smaller separate trails allow for horseback riding, walking, and bicycling in the warm months. The cold months offer additional activities along the trail such as, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

The Spencer family home today
The Byron Historical Society- email transcripts from Maureen Betz

The Wild Goose State Trail was a completely different experience for Philena Spencer during her lifetime. The noisy railway separated her husband’s land from their neighbors and allowed her community to thrive with the transportation of goods and people to the area. Without the railroad, the small town of Byron may not have survived to the present day, like many small towns that were settled at the same time in Wisconsin. Today, The Wild Goose State Trail allows visitors and residents to explore the history of Byron and its residents by allowing them to travel the old railroad that allowed for this region of Wisconsin to thrive.

Chicago and Northwestern Railroad Depot (Fond du Lac, Wisconsin)

Travel Wisconsin: Wild Goose State Trail

Chicago and North Western Transportation Company

Wisconsin DENR: Wild Goose State Trail

Fond du lac County: Wild Goose State Trail

1854 Quilt Completed
1855 Fond du lac railed started in March
1856 Philena marries into the Spencer family in 1856
1900 Bezaleel dies so the farm is sold
1975 Railroad seems to have been abandoned after the company’s significant reduction in size

Why I choose this object?

Waverly Buschke Fisher is a senior studying Political Science and History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and will graduate in May of 2022 with a BA. Waverly’s love of history first stemmed from her great grandmother, Mary Ellen. Mary Ellen being an avid quilter, even at the age of 90, would tell Waverly stories of her youth that occurred all over Fond du Lac County, often in her sewing room while she quilted by hand. Philena Spencer’s signature quilt was a perfect object for her to further study, because it combined two things she loves about her great grandmother.

Waverly Buschke Fisher


History 401 [Spring 2022]

Leslie A. Bellais